Mistakes In Education

We adults tend to fear making mistakes. We weren’t like that as children; watch any child learn to walk, or learn to ride a skateboard, shoot baseline jumpers over and over, or do just about anything that requires practice. Children keep at it, despite making mistakes repeatedly, because it’s fun. That is, the activity they’ve chosen is fun for them, and the road to mastery is also fun.

At least it’s fun until someone else tells you to do it in school, where grades are at stake. Then we quickly learn to become anxious, and we do whatever we can to avoid mistakes. For mistakes lead to the dreaded red X marks, which lead directly to poor grades. And that, we are trained to understand, must be avoided at all costs.

All this is to our collective detriment. We’ve raised a cohort of children stewing with anxiety. Besides being utterly ineffective in helping children to learn, it’s absolutely inhumane.

Consider the wise words of John Wheeler, who advised his graduate students to make as many mistakes as possible, as fast as possible. (And correct them of course.) This is the way to learn, to copy what children do naturally. Just keep doing, keep going, keep missing, and keep learning why you missed, what went wrong, and do whatever is necessary to patch things up. It’s not exactly rocket science, but it does work.

The same process is used very effectively by entrepreneurs, engineers, and other creative types. Peter Sims has written a book about this recently (I have not read it yet, but just ordered it), and of course there’s the inspiring Nike commercial (I’m not a great fan of Michael Jordan, but this one is really good). I just read a wonderful piece about the invention of ultralight human-powered flying machines by Paul MacCready (which I found out about at John D. Cook’s excellent blog, The Endeavour). MacCready solved the problem of inventing a human-powered flying machine by first solving a facilitating problem: How one could re-construct an airplane within hours rather than months. By doing this, he was able to greatly increase the frequency of his mistaken design attempts, and thereby greatly speed up the entire creative process.

We’ve got to change the way we do things in schools. Penalizing students for making mistakes, which are a normal and natural part of the learning process, is not only silly but absolutely counterproductive. By doing so we are crushing the enthusiasm and stunting the creativity of our beautiful young people, and encouraging them to pursue a soul-damaging chase after grades.

We have to do for the education system what MacCready did for his design process. We need a meta-change. Getting rid of grades and changing the way we assess students will be revolutionary, and will allow all of the other many excellent ideas for transforming the education system dreamed up and tested by many teachers out there to reach the full flower of their beauty. Once this is done, then our efforts at helping students to learn will be multiplied.

In a following post I’ll continue with my thoughts on how to assess students instead of grading them.

(This post first appeared at my other (now deleted) blog, and was transferred to this blog on 22 January 2021.)